ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Kramer Winingham took over in 2013 as director of New Mexico State University’s Studio G startup incubator for students and alumni, only three people were receiving program assistance to get new businesses off the ground.
But, today, about 150 students and alumni are working with Studio G, reflecting explosive growth over the past three years at Arrowhead Center Inc., the nonprofit entity that runs Studio G, and all other entrepreneurship and technology transfer programs at NMSU.
Through Arrowhead, university faculty, staff, students and alumni can gain access to a broad range of business services, from mentoring, coaching and training to assistance with marketing, industry contacts and potential funding opportunities.
As a result, a new-found interest in entrepreneurship is spreading across campus.
“We’ve worked with more than 300 student entrepreneurs since 2013,” Winningham said. “We currently have more than 100 active ventures in Studio G, all of them run by students or recent alumni.”
Arrowhead’s activities are now growing so fast that the center – currently housed in about 13,000 square feet of pods on the south end of campus – barely has room to operate. That’s generated plans for a new 64,000-square-foot facility to unite Studio G and all of Arrowhead’s other programs under one roof, and to provide space for startups and established businesses to co-locate there. The university expects to break ground on the facility this summer, with a grand opening targeted for mid-2017.
“It’s like sardines now but, with the new facility, we’ll be able to get everyone in one place,” said Arrowhead Director Kathryn Hansen. “That’s important to facilitate all the collisions and networking that are critical to our programs. It will become a true showplace that reflects everything we’re doing.”
Such growing pains are a novel, but welcome, burden for Arrowhead, which has struggled since launching in 2004 to build momentum for tech-transfer programs and startups at NMSU.
In its first years, the center encouraged some faculty to pursue commercialization of technologies emerging from university labs, providing assistance to protect intellectual property and for marketing activities. But those programs never really took off until 2011, when Arrowhead won a $2 million, three-year i6 Challenge grant from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration. The funding allowed NMSU to fully develop and expand Arrowhead’s fledgling Launch Proof of Concept program, which was set up prior to the i6 grant to help students and faculty commercialize university technologies.
Launch has since become a magnet for new commercialization endeavors, where aspiring entrepreneurs with the most promising NMSU technologies are selected to receive four months of business training and mentoring, plus some initial, nominal funding. Graduating companies then compete for grants of up to $25,000 to continue building their businesses, with a total of $50,000 available for projects each year.
To date, Launch has awarded $250,000 in seed funding to 14 commercial projects, Hansen said.
Alongside Launch, Arrowhead has built an “innovation network” with about 145 industry experts, investors, entrepreneurs and business professionals from around New Mexico. Participants provide consulting and advice on NMSU’s technology transfer programs, and offer mentoring, coaching and technical assistance to university startups.
And the i6 grant paved the way for Studio G, which Arrowhead set up in 2012 to assist students and alumni in building businesses, based either on NMSU innovation or on their own ideas for products and services.
“The grant had a transformational nature on our programs,” Hansen said. “It allowed Studio G to be successful and it helped us push technology commercialization through the Launch Proof of Concept Center.”
In addition, the innovation network – which includes many of the movers and shakers involved in startup programs in Albuquerque and Santa Fe – has provided a solid base of support that Arrowhead previously lacked.
“You can’t go it alone,” Hansen said. “People around the state and beyond have been incredibly generous with their time and expertise.”
Arrowhead has tapped into other key federal funding programs to provide more direct support to startups with university technology. Through assistance from Launch, six companies won grants of $50,000 each from the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps Program to accelerate their paths to market.
That includes some cutting-edge technologies that could impact a range of industries, such as a new material to better capture and store carbon dioxide, a novel gyroscope design for nano satellites and an all-natural pesticide for organic growers.
Arrowhead also won a three-year, $300,000 NSF award to become an iCorps program site. That allows NMSU to provide grants of up to $2,000 each for 30 startups annually. Each startup participates in a five-week business accelerator training and mentoring program, after which those companies become eligible to apply for NSF’s $50,000 iCorps. grants.
In February, Arrowhead also won a new, $369,000 EDA grant to extend Studio G, Launch and other services to Doña Ana Community College, and to NMSU’s branch campuses in Alamogordo, Carlsbad and Grants.
Those receiving Arrowhead services say that, without the support programs, many technologies might never leave university labs.
Luke Smith, an NMSU graduate marketing the university’s new organic pesticide, said Arrowhead helped him access $150,000 in funding and technical assistance.
“Nothing would have happened without Arrowhead’s help,” Smith said. “That technology would have stayed on the shelf.”
Likewise, student entrepreneurs say Studio G is helping them develop and market innovative products and services. That includes lots of novel apps and creative retail products, such as handmade soap made with goats milk and organic oils and wax for beards and mustaches.
NMSU is now working to generate needed seed and early-stage capital for startups through a planned $2 million Arrowhead Innovation Fund that will include $500,000 from the NMSU Foundation and $1.5 million from private investors.
And it’s working with the local business community on other initiatives, such as a marketing and crowd funding website with the Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance called CrucesKick. The site launched in March with an initial campaign to raise funds for four NMSU startups.
Perhaps most important, Arrowhead is generating a cultural change on campus by helping university personnel see entrepreneurship and technology transfer as a key part of what they do. That’s a sea change for many scientists and academics, who often think commercial activities are unimportant.
More faculty are seeking center services, with 20 or more invention disclosures from researchers annually and 25 new patent applications filed since 2014, said Terry Lombard, Arrowhead director of intellectual property and technology transfer.
And student involvement helps inspire faculty.
“It’s offering students education and training through experiential learning,” said NMSU Vice President for Economic Development Kevin Boberg.
In that sense, Arrowhead wins even when student startups fail.
“We don’t expect all these students to create successful businesses off the bat, but they’re learning critical workplace skills, such as communication, team work and hypothesis testing,” Hansen said. “All that makes students more valuable employees. It’s a big contribution to workplace development even when businesses don’t work out.”